Building Tall Ship a New/Old Craft
By Brian Hicks, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
Feb. 12–It’s a cold, rainy morning in the shipyard, and John Pendleton is searching for the perfect curve.
He takes a long stick and lays it along the ribs of the Spirit of South Carolina’s hull, looking for any imperfection in its elegant, feminine shape.
Before planking on the ship continues, this has to be flawless.
“The curve is hard to get. You have to think three-dimensionally to get it right,” Pendleton explains. “The beauty is in the line.”
It is more art than science, more sculpture than construction. The craft of heavy-timber shipbuilding is a tradition that has largely faded from the national landscape, but one that a dozen shipwrights are keeping alive just a block off Charleston Harbor.
The once-delayed tall ship project is quietly making great gains these days, on track to launch in 2007. Since work restarted a year ago, this band of shipwrights has molded the skeletal frame at Ansonborough Field into a classic schooner, and along the way helped South Carolina revive the spirit of an industry that shaped America.
As a civic project it has a modest budget, only $4 million. But the product of the work, said Brad Van Liew, executive director of the S.C. Maritime Heritage Foundation, is “priceless.”
After all, you can’t just go out and buy a ship like this anymore.
And not just anyone can build one either.
Kenny Blyth is trying to figure out how to get a 400-pound square peg in a triangular, watertight compartment.
He is plotting the configuration of the Spirit’s “Samson posts,” basically two huge blocks of longleaf yellow pine that will hold the bowsprit in place.
Unfortunately, there’s really no instruction manual on how you do this. Blyth calls it a “fun challenge.”
Tall-ship construction is exactly that, a brain teaser for people who work well with large saws and like to cut plank from whole trees. A ship is a complex puzzle, one that has to be assembled in a certain order or it just does not work. One step leads to the next, and even the order of planks attached to the hull is of the utmost importance.
On this day the shipwrights are spread across the 100-foot hull of the ship, taking care of a variety of tasks. While Blyth works at the bow, Scott Watts directs the mainmast step into the belly of the ship. The long piece of live oak will support the ship’s towering mainmast and distribute its weight along the keel. The step has to go into the ship now because it won’t fit after the decking is put on.
The Spirit of South Carolina is based on the plans of a 19th- century Charleston pilot schooner, the Frances Elizabeth, which was built within a stone’s throw of Ansonborough Field. This project is close to its history in more ways than one.
Blyth, a Charleston native who used to have a flooring business, is more aware of this than most. He works with an eye to history, stopping to point out the dense pattern in the pine that looks like grooves on a record album.
“Look at all those rings,” he says. “This tree was alive when the Frances Elizabeth was first launched.”
Everything springs from the keel.
It is the starting point from which a ship grows, its spine. The Spirit’s is made of angelique, a South American hardwood that makes concrete feel like foam rubber. Woodworking with angelique requires great familiarity with the business end of a chainsaw — and plenty of spare blades.
“We had volunteers standing by with replacement blades because they broke every few minutes,” Van Liew says. “We have about 12 out getting sharpened at a time.”
They build from raw materials, much like their ancestors did, cutting their lumber from whole trees and threading their own brass bolts — they couldn’t afford to buy such things. They shape the wood by hand and used hand chisels to cut the “rabbit,” the groove in the keel that the garboard — the first plank — fits into. Then the work gets tough.
To make the ship’s ribs, they have to bend rock-hard live oak wood into the Spirit’s hourglass shape. They do this by steaming the wood overnight, just as shipwrights did a century ago. The next morning the sap is fluid enough to allow it to bend — for about 15 minutes.
When the ribs are attached to the keel, the hull looks like a whale carcass, albeit a completely uniform one. Still, there are minor imperfections. And it’s Pendleton’s job to find them. He measures the slope and level of the ribs, which determine the ship’s shape, using a 12-foot-long stick labelled the “batton.”
Pendleton, a Pennsylvania native with 15 years experience, was attracted to the Spirit for the chance to work with live oak and longleaf yellow pine, historically accurate wood, and a luxury some projects don’t have.
“I’ve got the experience now to usually get these jobs, and I like working on the big boats,” he says, eyeballing the line he’s clamped to the two ribs.
After the keel, the ribs are the most important part of the hull. The planks have to attach to them perfectly, in a complicated pattern to distribute the seams so as to avoid weak spots.
“Do you realize how many places there are on a ship where water could get in?” Van Liew says.
Everything must fit tightly, the planks must conform to the ribs perfectly, for beauty, speed and seaworthiness. Imperfections can be shimmed or patched, but then it wouldn’t be art.
“I have to make it so there are no bumps, no flat spots,” Pendleton says.
Lasting part of history
On the bow, Jim Knowles of Wilmington, Del., molds the knightheads out of angelique. He’s wearing out power tools smoothing the hardwood to a graceful curve. For him, this work was a chance to get away from building houses or offices — you know, box construction.
“It is more interesting to work with the curves of a ship,” Knowles says.
It is exactly that attitude that attracted Mark Bayne to the project. A professional boat builder since the 1970s, he was intrigued when Charlie Sneed and a few others started kicking around the idea of building a tall ship back in the 1990s.
Since the 1980s about 20 such ships had been built, sign of a growing interest in the almost-lost art. Few of those ships were in the South, none in South Carolina. Bayne did not hesitate when he was invited to be master shipwright for the Spirit.
Bayne said it gives him a sense of wonder to think that the ship will outlive anyone working on it. A century from now, he said, the Spirit of South Carolina will be rocking at sea somewhere, these joints that his shipwrights have so carefully assembled creaking in the night. He likes the sense of history it gives him.
“Anyone who does this kind of work has a tall ship on the list of things they want to,” Bayne says. “For me, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.”
THE SPIRIT OF SOUTH CAROLINA BY THE NUMBERS:
–93.8 feet — Rail length
–90.7 feet — Deck length
–88 feet — Waterline length
–140 feet — Overall length
–23.7 feet — Beam
-147.8 long tons — Displacement
–12.5 knots — Speed
–29 people — Capacity (22 cadets and 7 crew)
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